Global demography in the animal kingdom

Today the paper that introduces the COMADRE Animal Matrix Database was published in Journal of Animal Ecology (Salguero-Gómez et al. 2016). This is an international effort in collaboration with ca. 10 other institutions. Our main goal was to replicate the impact that its sister database, the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database (Salguero-Gómez et al. 2015) has had for plant ecology and evolution, but in the rich animal kingdom. Open access to the database itself can be gained from the COMADRE website.

comadre logo Continue reading

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A Look Back At 2015 … And A Little Peek Forward

It’s been another busy year at Journal of Animal Ecology, with more personnel changes and a few new initiatives. Here, we review some of these developments.

Papers and other media

Last year was another good year for the journal, with our Impact Factor remaining strong (4.504), ranking us 2nd out of 149 Zoology journals and 24th out of 143 Ecology journals. We continued to publish a number of successful Feature papers, including two How to.. papers, which continue to be extremely popular with our readers. The first, by Marie-Therese Puth, Markus Neuhäuser and Graeme D. Ruxton ‘On the variety of methods for calculating confidence intervals by bootstrapping’ and the second, by Damien Farine and Hal Whitehead, on ‘Constructing, conducting and interpreting animal social network analysis’. The latter was accompanied by a Virtual Issue on social network analysis, edited by Senior Editor Ben Sheldon. We also published a joint Virtual Issue with Journal of Applied Ecology and Methods in Ecology and Evolution on ‘Monitoring Wildlife’, featuring a selection of papers focusing on new methods and technologies for monitoring animals in their natural environments. To coincide with Open Access Week in October 2015, the five BES journals published a Virtual Issue of a selection of our OA papers. We also welcome unsolicited inquiries about potential Virtual Issues, whether you would like to see a particular topic covered, or whether you would like to edit one yourself. Similarly, we continue to welcome other special features including Synthesis, Review and How to.. papers, as well as topical Forum articles, so if you have any ideas, please let us know. Continue reading

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Do animals exercise to keep fit?

This blog post is a press release of the Journal of Animal Ecology paper “Do animals exercise to keep fit?” by Lewis Halsey. Press release issued by The British Ecological Society

From joining a gym to taking up running, getting fit is a perennially popular new year’s resolution. We lead sedentary lifestyles and have easy access to energy-rich food, so we need to do voluntary exercise in order to keep fit. But what about other animals? Does a harbour porpoise, perhaps, need to put in extra training to ensure it can out-swim the dolphins that hunt it? Do animals exercise to keep fit?

It’s a question Dr Lewis Halsey of the University of Roehampton ponders in a new paper published today in the Journal. And the surprising answer is that we don’t know – because it is an issue that has gone almost entirely unstudied.

Animals need energy for growth and for locomotion, for attack and defence, and ultimately for reproduction. Yet animals can only obtain energy intermittently by foraging, storing some of it to use later, so the energetic ecology of an animal is fundamental to its success.

As an eco-physiologist, Halsey studies how animals expend energy, and how they adapt their behaviour and physiology to reduce their energy costs. On Sundays he goes running on Wimbledon Common.

“It made me think about my own biology and ecology. If I don’t exercise I get less fit, and am less able to do highly active things. So I wondered if some animals need to spend time and energy on voluntary exercise so that they are fit enough to out-run predators, win over mates or hunt down prey,” he explains.

But when he searched the literature, he found very few studies on the matter. “Researchers haven’t contemplated the idea that some animals may not do enough exercise during their general activities to be suitably fit for infrequent, high-intensity activities such as fleeing from predators. This needs to change,” says Halsey.

His new paper, which he hopes will encourage more research, outlines a set of concepts and the experiments that could be used to test them. But despite the lack of direct evidence, he points to some intriguing animal studies – from polar bears and penguins to giant pandas and barnacle geese – that suggest the answers might depend on an animal’s ecology.

According to Halsey: “We know that animals change their body condition in response to environmental conditions. Songbirds may put on some weight to survive the winter, but not too much if predators are around lest they become slow at escaping. And harbour porpoises, if regularly preyed on by dolphins, become much sleeker and carry less body fat so that they can out-swim their attackers.”

There are examples, too, of animals getting fatter when they have no predators to fear. This could explain why laboratory animals pile on the pounds (even though mice and rats will voluntarily run on wheels provided), and why giant pandas are so sedentary. During the day, giant pandas walk on average just 27m in an hour, but their presumed low aerobic fitness may not concern them because they no longer have predators to worry about.

Other species can maintain key aspects of their fitness without doing any voluntary exercise. In the polar regions, polar bears and penguins burn different tissues while fasting. During hibernation polar bears maintain crucial muscles so that they are still physically strong when they wake up. And while king penguins lose lots of muscle during their fasts on land, they seem to be able to get fit very quickly once they return to sea to fish.

Barnacle geese appear to be an extra special case of getting fit quickly. Some populations migrate 2,500km each autumn from Svalbard to Scotland, yet in the run up to migration they fly for only a few minutes each day – short bursts of flight that perhaps mirror the modern high-intensity training (HIT) regimes human athletes use to boost maximal aerobic capacity.

But according to Halsey: “Barnacle geese appear to get fit for certain predictable, planned events such as migration and yet miraculously seem able to do so with little or no voluntary exercise. So their bodies seem to trigger increased fitness from within – they get fit automatically when they need to – enough to make any human with a waning new year’s resolution to get fit very jealous.”

Finding out more about whether animals exercise to keep fit could have important scientific implications, challenging existing orthodoxy on animal ecology and behaviour, says Halsey.

“If animals are undertaking activities solely or partly to keep fit, this opens up a significant new facet to our understanding and interpretation of animal behaviour. No-one has previously observed animal behaviours and thought ‘this behaviour could be associated with keeping fit’,” he explains.

“On top of this, if indeed some animals have to ‘keep fit’ then the activity involved could burn important energy reserves, which feeds into fundamental ideas of optimality, where animals are expected to expend time and energy in ways that maximise their short- or long-term success.”

For more information contact Dr Lewis Halsey, University of Roehampton, email:, mob: +44 (0)7779 784523

Dr Lewis Halsey (2016). ‘Do animals exercise to keep fit?’, doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12488

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How a Special Feature can help wildlife “Stuck in Motion” – Video post

In an epoch that will likely be remembered as “The Anthropocene”, wildlife is struggling to cope with anthropogenic habitat loss, fragmentation and disturbance. Ancient migration routes are being lost as we speak, and animal space use, behaviour and life history are undergoing rapid changes. “Villy” and his Norwegian wild reindeer pals are extremely wary of human activities, and may be considered emblematic of the challenge of human-wildlife coexistence.

We believe that science can help. The first step is to single out key ecological questions, and to identify the most appropriate technologies and methodologies to answer them. Proper analyses of GPS-tracking data have recently provided scientists with unprecedented opportunities to understand mechanisms underlying the observed patterns and processes of animal space use, and to make inferences and predictions needed to guide sustainable development and support human-wildlife coexistence. Continue reading

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The secret life of wild reindeer

This post presents photos from the Special Feature” Stuck in motion? Reconnecting questions and tools in movement ecology ” from the current issue (85:1) of Journal of Animal Ecology


Wild mountain reindeer. Photo: wild reindeer.

Taken from GPS collars equipped with wide-angle cameras, these amazing shots represent an unprecedented window into the lives of reindeer, one of the most ancient deer species in the world. Few people are aware that within the heart of Europe there still exist mass migrations as spectacular but more secretive than those in the Serengeti. Yet, reindeer migrations represent one of the most endangered phenomena in the Northern hemisphere. Wild reindeer are extremely wary of humans, who have been harvesting them since pre-historic times using large-scale pitfall systems. Their anti-predator strategy consists of aggregating in large herds roaming across vast mountain plateau in southern Norway, and avoiding human activities. Following the industrial revolution, the development of anthropogenic infrastructures has therefore led to the fragmentation of the last remaining wild mountain reindeer population into 23 virtually isolated sub-populations, and has hampered/blocked migration routes used since pre-historic times. Due to the increase in tourism, hydropower and other human activities in mountain areas, fragmentation is rapidly ongoing. Continue reading

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When does ecology of fishes became fisheries research?


World fisheries day, celebrated today aims to draw attention to the poor status of many fished species as a consequence of overfishing, habitat degradation, global warming, and pollution. Clearly, we stand far from the key objective of fisheries management, that is, to regulate fishing such that in the long term harvesting is sustainable. Less political and more science-based management has frequently been called upon as a solution and ‘ecosystem-based fisheries management’ is a term often repeated, but rarely implemented. In fact, a recent study by Skern-Mauritzen et al. (2015) showed that out of 1200 reviewed fisheries, ecosystem-based drivers were only accounted for in 24 cases. Continue reading

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Bugs collected on rooftop for 18 years reveal climate change effects

This blog post is a press release from the authors of the Journal of Animal Ecology paper “Resource specialists lead local insect community turnover associated with temperature – analysis of an 18-year full-seasonal record of moths and beetles” by Thomsen et al. Press release issued by University of Copenhagen

Horse-chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella) and acorn weevil (Curculio glandium) Photo credit: Jens Kirkeby (above) and Klaus Bek Nielsen.

Horse-chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella) and acorn weevil (Curculio glandium) Photo credit: Jens Kirkeby (top) and Klaus Bek Nielsen (bottom).

A volunteer registration of insects for 18 consecutive years on the Copenhagen roof of the Natural History Museum of Denmark has revealed local insect community turnover due to climate change. The research suggests a pattern of specialised species being more sensitive to climate change.1543 different species of moths and beetles and more than 250,000 individuals have been registered on a single urban rooftop in Copenhagen over 18 years of monitoring. That corresponds to 42 % of all the species of moths in Denmark and 12 % of the beetles. More interestingly, the insect community has changed significantly during that period. The results are published in the Journal of Animal Ecology led by researchers from the Center for Geogenetics and the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen.

“As temperature increases we see a corresponding change in the insect community, specifically for the resource specialists – the insects that feed on only one species of plant. Earlier studies have confirmed that specialist species also respond rapidly to destruction of their habitats, so we are dealing with a very sensitive group of animals” says one of the lead authors postdoc Philip Francis Thomsen from the Center for Geogenetics. Continue reading

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Spatial overlap in a solitary predator

F97, a subadult female raised by F61. Photograph by Patrick Lendrum / Panthera.

F97, a subadult female raised by F61. Photograph by Patrick Lendrum / Panthera.

F61 and F51, adult female cougars (Puma concolor), also called mountain lions, were very nearly the same age when they gave birth to their first litters of kittens within a month of each other in 2011. The pair of big cats were neighbors in adjacent and overlapping home ranges in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, east of Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming, USA.

A well-placed motion-triggered camera caught a fortuitous image of F61 and F51 spending time together in early 2012, accompanied by their four kittens (1 from F61, 3 from F51). It sparked great discussion among our team, many of whom were convinced they must be close relatives, perhaps sisters. Indeed, prevailing theory supported the idea that close kin were more likely to be close to each other and tolerant of one other. Thus, it just made sense that the two cats would be kin. At the time, however, we did not know the genetic relatedness of cougars in our study, except of course, kittens born to females we were tracking. Continue reading

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Accurate timing of migration prolongs life expectancy in pike

This blog post is a press release from the authors of the Journal of Animal Ecology paper “Causes and consequences of repeatability, flexibility and individual fine-tuning of migratory timing in pike” by Petter Tibblin published today. Press release issued by Linnaeus University

Animal migration is a spectacular phenomenon that has fascinated humans for a long time. It is widely assumed that appropriate timing of migratory events is crucial for survival, but the causes and consequences of individual variation in timing are poorly understood. New research based on migrating pike in the Baltic Sea and published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Animal Ecology reveals how behaviours such as punctuality, flexibility and fine-tuning influence life expectancy in fish. Continue reading

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From social network analysis to speciation in the Neotropics: exciting research by early career ornithologists.

Mentoring in action: the networking event that occurred after the lightning talks by early career ornithologists that I described in my earlier post.

Mentoring in action: the networking event that occurred after the lightning talks by early career ornithologists that I described in my earlier post.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the joint American Ornithologists Union (AOU) and Cooper Ornithological Society (COS) conference this year emphasized a renewed focus on early career professionals.  Such a practice is key in supporting early careers folks in a time when the job market is tight and funding rates are very low.  Many of us may receive quality one-on-one mentoring at our home institutions, but this type of feedback in a conference setting from individuals that may be on search committees or grant review panels is also invaluable. AOU is not the only organization to recognize this need. The Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) also provides opportunities for one-on-one mentoring for early career professionals, and I’m sure readers can name other scientific organizations and conferences that do the same.  In all, this is an important movement among organizations to foster the next generation in tangible ways.  Keeping in the spirit of this movement, I’d like to highlight papers given by early career individuals from the AOU-COS 2015 conference.

Jared Wolfe, trained in Phil Stouffer’s lab at Louisiana State University and now with the USDA forest service, gave one of the Cooper Young Professional presentations.  Using one of the more elegant sets of slides I’ve seen, he presented research by himself and colleagues in the Stouffer lab on the impact of second growth forest on the behavior, survival and biogeography of birds in the Amazon.  This research was based in the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP), started in 1979 by Thomas Lovejoy near Manaus, Brazil. The BDFFP consists of a series of differently sized old growth fragments that are being reconnected by second growth forest of different ages. Comparing this incredible study site to a series of islands created by flooding in a nearby area around the same time, Wolfe and colleagues were able to demonstrate that, at least for birds, forest fragments do not behave like islands in terms of species composition or survival. They also asked whether second growth is ‘bad’ or ‘good’ habitat.  By comparing fragments embedded within variably aged second growth (from <5 years to >10 years), they demonstrated that edge birds do well with young second growth whereas insectivorous understory birds do not. As the second growth matures, they found that young insectivorous understory birds begin to recolonize regenerating forest and it was hypothesized during Q&A that the most sensitive bird species may recover after 60 years of regeneration. Perhaps the most interesting finding to me was that networks of mixed- species flocks were quite unstable in second growth itself, but began to exhibit a more complete network in fragments connected by second growth.  It is worth noting that these results are the work of thousands of hours of netting, surveying and following birds with radio telemetry in difficult field conditions year round.  Of great interest to Neotropical ornithologists who do not have a trusty Pyle guide to turn to, Wolfe and Erik Johnson have worked out aging techniques based on molt cycles and plumage patterns for a number of tropical species, which will open up new avenues of research on these birds.  Very exciting! Expect that work out soon through the Studies of Avian Biology.  Finally, I should note that Wolfe and two colleagues, Luke Powell and Jacob Cooper are working to address the same questions in Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa, as well as conserve rapidly disappearing species in that region.  Be sure to check out their endeavors ( and future publications!

Maya Faccio, a Ph.D. student in the Weir Lab at the University of Toronto, gave a great talk on the genomics of speciation in the Hypocnemoides Amazonian complex. The ranges of many Amazonian birds are defined by river barriers and generally are thought to drive speciation in allopatry.  Faccio and colleagues examined the black chinned antbird (H. melanopogon) and band-tailed antbird (H. maculicauda) that come into geographic contact along the eastern edge of their range.  They used a genome-wide SNP dataset and fastsimcoal2 to test whether these sibling species evolved via speciation in allopatry with secondary contact or whether parapatric speciation is in play.  A model of parapatric speciation was rejected, and the best model was one of an initial allopatric phase followed by secondary parapatry. I was taken by this talk because the genomics of speciation is still a relatively recent field, and focused primarily on model taxa or non-model taxa in temperate regions. I was impressed to see a well-executed genomics approach to a speciation question in a tropical bird species by a graduate student.  Keep an eye out for this student’s work!

Elizabeth Hobson, trained in Tim Wright’s lab at NMSU and now a postdoc at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, was one of the early career professionals who took part in the lightning slide talks this year at AOU. Dr. Hobson integrates behavioral assays and cutting edge network analysis to address questions about the emergence of group-level social structures. Using novel captive groups of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), she asked questions about whether rank affects how individuals decide to target aggression and potential cognitive mechanisms involved in inferring own and others’ ranks.  Rank does affect target choice, and after a week of settling into new groups, individuals shift in behavior to preferentially target aggression against those nearby in rank. Her modeling work revealed that individuals could use subsets of the aggression network to infer third-party relationships.  This ability for social memory and inference allows individuals to avoid costly social interactions and instead target those most likely to threaten their own position in rank. Plus, the network models make for great visualizations of quantitative (behavioral) information!

There were many more excellent talks and posters given by early career ornithologists, and I congratulate the organizers, Eli Bridge and Jeff Kelly, for putting together an engaging, intimate AOU-COS meeting this year.  Be on the look out for next year’s exciting, largest-ever North American Ornithological Conference, NAOC 2016.

Elizabeth Derryberry
Associate Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology

Former and current students and curators at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. Names: Left-right: Kevin Burns (Curator, San Diego State University Museum of Diversity), Liz Derryberry (faculty, Tulane University), Andy Kratter (Collection Manager, University of Florida Museum), Phil Stouffer (faculty, LSU), Matt Carling (Curator, University of Wyoming), Sinéad Borchert (Stouffer lab, LSU), Robb Brumfield (Director, LSU Museum of Natural Science), Clare Brown (Sheldon lab, LSUMNS), Ryan Burner (Brumfield lab), Angelica Hernandez Palma (Stouffer lab, LSU), Mark Robbins (Collections Manager, Kansas University), Terry Chesser (Curator, Smithsonian), Fred Sheldon (Curator, LSU MNS), Oscar Johnson (Brumfield lab), Jared Wolfe (USDA Forest Service).

Former and current students and curators at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. Names:
Left-right: Kevin Burns (Curator, San Diego State University Museum of Diversity), Liz Derryberry (faculty, Tulane University), Andy Kratter (Collection Manager, University of Florida Museum), Phil Stouffer (faculty, LSU), Matt Carling (Curator, University of Wyoming), Sinéad Borchert (Stouffer lab, LSU), Robb Brumfield (Director, LSU Museum of Natural Science), Clare Brown (Sheldon lab, LSUMNS), Ryan Burner (Brumfield lab), Angelica Hernandez Palma (Stouffer lab, LSU), Mark Robbins (Collections Manager, Kansas University), Terry Chesser (Curator, Smithsonian), Fred Sheldon (Curator, LSU MNS), Oscar Johnson (Brumfield lab), Jared Wolfe (USDA Forest Service).

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East Africa’s Elephant Architects

I can see elephants in my backyard—at least fifteen of them, youngsters and grownups. They are a few hundred meters off, but distinctive amongst the thorn trees, and my eyes drift to them every time I look up from the computer screen.

Elephants as seen through the window as I sat down to write this post at Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, July 5th 2015

Elephants as seen through the window as I sat down to write this post at Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, July 5th 2015

In the 12 years that I’ve been working here at the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya’s Laikipia Highlands, elephants have grown both more abundant and more tranquil, less prone to howl at passing cars. This shift has both deep and shallow historical roots: Laikipia’s colonial legacy of large landholdings, a decentralized local conservation movement, the diminishing profitability of livestock, the rise of ecotourism, urbanization, globalization. These factors, independently and synergistically, have helped Laikipians tolerate elephants, and tolerance is reciprocated. Sitting at this little desk in this tiny sliver of equatorial Africa, I find it easy not to stew about the future of elephants. I mean, look at them out there.

Elephants in Laikipia’s clay-soil, with Mt. Kenya and Acacia drepanolobium trees in the background

Elephants in Laikipia’s clay-soil, with Mt. Kenya and Acacia drepanolobium trees in the background

In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, where I spent the previous month, things are different. Gorongosa’s elephants are rebounding after having nearly been exterminated during two decades of war (another colonial legacy). The story of exactly what happened to the elephants during those years remains to be told, but the anecdotes are depressingly credible: ivory swapped for guns used to shoot more elephants to buy more guns. Since 2004, a sweeping restoration effort has bought the time and space for elephant numbers to quintuple, but erasing the biological and cultural legacies of the slaughter will take centuries. Gorongosa’s elephants, many of them tuskless, are anxious on the best of days; on the worst of days, they try to kill you.

A herd of elephants, including tuskless females, in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park

A herd of elephants, including tuskless females, in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park

Just as you can read human history in elephant behavior, you can read elephant history in the landscape. Anyone who has ever seen an elephant feeding can appreciate their ability to maintain open savannas (or, more pejoratively, to destroy woodland) by felling large trees. Accordingly, the human-elephant détente in Laikipia has left footprints. When my colleague Truman Young started working at Mpala in the early 1990s, the tree Acacia hockii was locally common. Now, it is almost gone; a team of botanists recently found one individual growing in an inaccessible rock-slope refuge—a great find. Because each tree species is the hub of many ecological interactions, elephants’ feeding habits can create shockwaves throughout entire communities. The hook-thorned Acacia mellifera, whose cage-like architecture provides daytime sleep-sites for nocturnal bushbabies, seems to be declining on Mpala’s clay-rich soils as elephant densities increase. As goes mellifera, so should go bushbabies.

In Gorongosa, conversely, the prolonged absence of elephants and other large herbivores has triggered substantial expansion of woody vegetation. Work by my student Josh Daskin has shown that tree cover has more than doubled in Gorongosa’s Rift Valley habitats over the past 35 years. This too has undoubtedly had cascading impacts on Gorongosa’s other fauna.

This ability of elephants to transform landscapes has motivated a large body of research, including our study in Journal of Animal Ecology. We showed that fire—another potent form of disturbance in savannas—amplifies elephant ecosystem engineering in Mpala’s clay-soil habitats. The vast majority of trees in these soils are whistling-thorns (Acacia drepanolobium), which elephants rarely touch. Why? Because A. drepanolobium is well-defended via its co-evolved relationship with ants that protect the trees from herbivores (elephants dislike getting ants up their noses). The experiment involved torching a series 900-m2 patches, inside and outside of plots from which elephants and giraffes are excluded using two-meter-high electrified wires.

Electrified wires exclude elephants from experimental plots

Electrified wires exclude elephants from experimental plots

These controlled burns killed many of the ant colonies, depriving trees of their symbiotic guardians. In the elephant-free zones, the antless trees stayed upright. But outside the fenced areas, elephants zeroed in on the newly vulnerable trees and wreaked havoc.

Of course, ‘havoc’ depends on your point of view. For arboreal dwarf day geckos (Lygodactylus keniensis), which are the most numerous vertebrate animals in this habitat, the patches of toppled trees were prime real estate. Browsing elephants snap stems and large branches, creating small cracks and crevices that geckos use as refuges and nest sites. In our experiment, gecko abundance quickly doubled in plots affected by both elephants and fire—a synergistic effect, meaning that the combined impact of the two disturbances together was greater than the sum of each independently.

An elephant feeds on Acacia mellifera at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya

An elephant feeds on Acacia mellifera at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya

But the gecko housing bubble was short-lived. After 12 months, severely damaged trees in the unfenced plots began to collapse, reducing gecko densities from the astronomical levels (up to 1,100 per hectare!) attained in the first year of the experiment. In the fenced burned plots, meanwhile, scorched trees were slowly decaying, creating novel lizard-friendly fissures. After 16 months, gecko abundance was equally high in all burned plots, regardless of elephants. Thus, fire by itself had the effect of doubling gecko abundance; it’s just that the effect emerged more rapidly with an assist from the elephants. In contrast, elephant effects materialized only in burned plots and then melted away.

The importance of fire-elephant interactions in African savannas is widely appreciated, but our study was unusual in two respects. First, due to the difficult-to-tame nature of both elephants and fire, most prior studies have relied heavily on observational data. By manipulating both fire and elephants in a controlled and replicated experiment, we were able to quantify their interactive effects in the absence of confounding environmental variability. Second, although small animals constitute the bulk of biodiversity, prior studies of the elephant-fire nexus have focused almost exclusively on vegetation. Intuition suggests that these ‘destructive’ forces should negatively affect arboreal animals (and in some cases they surely do), yet our study showed that their effects can be positive—and even more positive in combination, at least temporarily—by rearranging tree architecture.

As illustrated by the divergent scenarios unfolding in Laikipia and Gorongosa, elephant populations are acutely sensitive to the human dramas in which they are embedded. Their profound ecological impacts, like those of fire, stir strong emotions and spark debates that divide management teams. What is the right number of elephants, and how often should a savanna burn? Science cannot adjudicate those subjective questions, but it can help us anticipate the likely consequences of their answers. Observational, experimental, and modeling studies each independently illuminate important facets of this problem; together, their effects are synergistic.

Rob Pringle
Princeton University
Twitter: @rob_pringle

For more of Rob’s photos please see the slideshow

All photographs by Robert M. Pringle

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American Ornithologists Union focuses on fledging early career professionals

It is a hot Friday morning, the second to last day of an intimate AOU-COS meeting on the University of Oklahoma campus, and a big day for my lab. A number of my students are giving their first conference talks and have the jitters. I’ve listened to renditions between sessions and late into the night. I remember the not too distant past when I stood nervous in my PI’s room, making yet another attempt to get through my talk in 12 minutes flat. My students’ talks seem so much better than the first ones that I wrote. I’m proud of them, although this doesn’t allay their nervousness one bit. This is also a big day for me, as I’m giving my first plenary. The invitation was unexpected. I am a third year faculty member, still making all the typical fledgling mistakes – ‘wait that $5000 centrifuge rotor doesn’t actually work with our plates?!’ – and only distantly considering a keynote should my H-index ever see the backside of 50 (side note – mine is 14).

This opportunity, and many similar ones occurring right now in AOU, is part of the efforts of Scott Lanyon, the current president, to embrace and encourage early career professionals. This is the second AOU-COS meeting to devote an afternoon to lightning-5-minute-auto slide advance talks by young professionals followed by a mentoring social. Each early career person is paired with a senior scientist and given detailed feedback on presentation style and interview techniques. This occurred yesterday and the room was packed, everyone eager to learn about the budding research programs of ten ornithologists. I wished this opportunity existed when I was about to enter the job market. Knowing how to sell your ideas in a cogent, exciting package is key in this tight job market. Several of the presentations were spotless, and the research presented cutting-edge. I suddenly realized that perhaps I wasn’t so early career anymore; with this young group about to fledge, it was time to stop reminiscing and get on with my own presentation. Wish me luck!

Elizabeth Derryberry
Associate Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology

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Life on the edge: celebrating a successful long-term ecological study


Photo credit: Ken Wilson

The Scottish isles of St Kilda, off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides, have an important place in my heart. It was on St Kilda where I first realised that not all sheep are boring, where I sustained my first fieldwork-related injury (a broken hip caused by an impact during a sheep-chasing incident!), where I successfully ran my first Research Council grant, and where I met my wife. It was also on St Kilda where I gained my first taste of a long-term ecological study, and where I realised what a tremendous effort is required to ensure their sustained persistence. On my first visit (lambing 1993), the St Kilda Soay sheep project was still in its infancy, having been conceived in its current form by Tim Clutton-Brock and Steve Albon in 1985. This year, the project celebrates its 30th anniversary and to mark this milestone the team organised a programme of public talks at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

I am sure that a summary of all the excellent presentations at the meeting will appear elsewhere, so here rather than repeat this, I wanted to reflect on some of the broader issues that these talks, and the project as a whole, raises about what makes a successful long-term study (with a special nod to Dave Coltman for the inspiration).

But first, is this really a long-term study and has it really been that successful?

Well, 30 years certainly feels like a long time, but the Soay sheep project is a spring chicken in comparison to some other long-term animal ecology studies – think great tits at Wytham Wood, chimpanzees at Gombe, elephants at Amboseli, Darwin’s finches on Daphne Major, aphids at Rothamsted, red deer on Rum, guillemots on Skomer, to name but a few [see Begging for funding]. However, if success if gauged in terms of research publications then the project compares favourably with the best of these – over the last three decades more than 150 papers have been published from the project, accumulating between them more than 5,000 citations (h-index = 42).

Photo: Ken Wilson

Photo: Ken Wilson

Another useful metric of success is the number of young scientists the project has trained and mentored. This is more difficult to quantify, but at a best guess the project has probably trained several dozen doctoral students and post-doctoral scientists (including two current, and one previous,  JAE senior editors!), not to mention scores of undergraduates and Masters students who have benefited from Soay sheep data and samples, and the literally hundreds of volunteers who have gained a valuable life experience. Of course, the Soay sheep project is not unique in either of these regards – indeed the production of lots of high-quality publications and young scientists is a well characterised output from most long-term studies, which is why they should be promoted and protected, as discussed previously on this blog.

So, why has the Soay sheep project been so successful?

Generous leadership: Over the years, a hallmark of the Soay sheep project has been that it has welcomed in new collaborators who bring in fresh skills and perspectives. What initially started out as an analysis of the causes and consequences of the unstable sheep population dynamics, quickly incorporated new questions about sheep genetics and the inheritance of traits, the role of parasites, vegetation dynamics, sheep behaviour, demography, quantitative genetics, genomics, immunology, ageing and physiology. It would have been easy for the project leaders to guard access to such a valuable and unique ecological resource, but by inviting new scientists to the party and encouraging ex-students and post-docs to develop their own areas for development, the Soay sheep project has continued to be at the vanguard of ecological science, with new collaborators adding value to ongoing studies rather than competing with them. That is not to say that it has always been smooth sailing (either metaphorically or literally – access to the islands requires a sea journey of at least 40 miles on often choppy seas!), or that personalities and egos have not clashed at times over the years. But under the considered and generous leadership, of first Tim Clutton-Brock and then Josephine Pemberton, the long-term future and development of the project has always taken centre stage.

Photo credit: Ken Wilson

Photo credit: Ken Wilson

The long game: Another reason for the project’s continued success is that whilst grant funding is typically short-term (usually three years), the outlook of the project has always been longer-term, with strategic planning of grant applications ensuring continual Research Council funding for the entire 30 years of the project – a quite spectacular feat! This has been made possible only by the combined efforts of lots of individuals and not just the nominal leaders of the project. Science funding is typically fickle, with research ideas coming in and out of fashion. An important bi-product of generous leadership is that there can be a pluralist approach to funding, with multiple applications for core funding being possible due to the diverse nature of the study and the questions that are currently considered ‘sexy’. Indeed, over the years the ‘core’ long-term monitoring of the Soay sheep project has been funded by grants to at least half-a-dozen different individuals.

The project has also taken a long-term approach to its understanding of the key questions being tackled. As ecologists, we are well aware that we can never fully understand ecological systems, and that all we can ever really do is to establish our best guess at the ‘truth’, which we must then update in light of new information. This is perhaps best illustrated by considering how our understanding of Soay sheep population dynamics has evolved since the project began. In 1992, just before I first visited St Kilda, Bryan Grenfell and others used the available data (6 years of high-quality census data from Village Bay) to argue that the unstable dynamics of the sheep were in fact intrinsic cycles driven by overcompensating density-dependent mortality. After I joined the project, we updated that assessment (based on 40 years of whole island census data from Hirta and neighbouring Boreray) to argue that the dynamics were not in fact cyclical but were due to pronounced threshold effects with population crashes occurring in years above some critical sheep density, the depth of which depended on winter weather (as illustrated by synchronous crashes occurring on isolated but neighbouring islands – the Moran effect). A few years later, Tim Coulson and colleagues showed that population age-structure was also important. Oh, and by the way, the long-term trend is for the sheep population size to increase and for the sheep themselves to get smaller, probably due to climate change. And to understand the mechanisms underpinning all this, we also need to consider the interaction between the sheep and their food supply: after more than 20 years of twice-yearly vegetation monitoring by Mick Crawley and students, we are only now getting close to understanding how the sheep and their food supply interact with each other and climate. The point is this: only by combining long-term data collection with a multi-disciplinary research agenda can we hope to tackle these ecosystem-scale interactions and the impact of large-scale phenomena such as global warming.

Photo Credit: Ken Wilson

Photo Credit: Ken Wilson

Continuity: Finally, another factor contributing to the success of the Soay sheep project is the continuity provided not just by its leadership and long-term collaborators, but also by its field staff and data curators. Jill Pilkington MBE has worked with the sheep project for over 20 years now, visiting the island for weeks at a time every spring, summer and autumn, come rain or shine. Ian Stevenson completed his PhD on St Kilda in 1994 and for the past 15 years has developed and managed the Soay sheep database, latterly in his role as MD of Sunadal Data Solutions . Their continued contribution to the project (and in Ian’s case to many other long-term studies) has not only allowed new methods and approaches to be developed and refined to work like clockwork, building on previous successes and rectifying previous errors, but has also provided an invaluable resource for new students and collaborators to mine. It is also worth noting here the important long-term support provided by the National Trust for Scotland, which owns the St Kilda, and Scottish Natural Heritage, which has oversight of conservation on the islands; without their continued understanding of the value of scientific research, this project could have died a long time ago.

I am not sure if the traits I have highlighted above are common to other successful long-term studies or if the Soay sheep project is unique. But either way, I think it provides a valuable example for other potential long-term studies to follow.

Ken Wilson

Senior Editor (@spodoptera007)

Three decades of Ken and Soay sheep!

Three decades of Ken and Soay sheep!

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Penguins on Parade: Conflict in South Georgia – A Slideshow

This gallery contains 16 photos.

The Sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is home to some of the world’s largest breeding aggregations of penguins. Long-term monitoring studies reveal that the local population trends are complex. Some species and colonies have rapidly declined, but others have increased … Continue reading

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VIDEO In hot and cold water: Life-history biology of the Antarctic Kiwaidae

In 2010, a UK-led expedition to the Southern Ocean revealed a community of deep-sea animals thriving around volcanic vents on the ocean floor near Antarctica. Among the many new species discovered, was the visually abundant yeti crab, Kiwa tyleri. As a result of local thermal conditions at the vents, these crabs are not restricted by the physiological limits that otherwise exclude reptant decapods from the cold stenothermal waters south of the polar front. Using a deep-sea remotely operated vehicle (ROV), research led by the University of Southampton reveals the adult life-history of this species by piecing together variation in microdistribution, body size-frequency, sex ratio, and ovarian and embryonic development, which indicates a pattern in the distribution of female Kiwaidae in relation to their reproductive development. These findings are published in the Journal of Animal Ecology (Marsh et al., 2015, In hot and cold water: differential life-history traits are key to success in contrasting thermal deep-sea environments).

(No audio)

Leigh Marsh
University of Southampton
(twitter: @Leigh_Marsh)

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Chi square I’ve met you before. A belated Valentine’s blog

For those readers who have met me, it will come as no surprise that I was a bit of a geek when I was doing my undergraduate studies.  And that was long before geek was in any way sexy.  Sheldon (from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and not @ben_sheldon_EGI) probably hadn’t been born.  However, one day one of the cool gang of undergraduates did talk to me.  She wondered whether she could use my results from a practical she had been ‘unable’ to attend.  I wanted to help but I was also concerned she’d copy my data and I’d end up being the one hauled over the coals for plagiarism.  So I came up with a cunning plan.  I wrote some code on the VAX (look it up online if you’re under 45) that took my data and generated a pseudo random dataset with many of the same statistical properties as the dataset I had collected.  It took me most of the night.  Nicole seemed happy, but not sufficiently so to come for a drink with me. Continue reading

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My life as a wealth generation asset

A few years ago, someone with an interest in dynamical systems devised a complex financial product that allowed banks and other larger corporations to achieve a good return on their investments at limited risk. But it turned out that their money was not as safe as they thought, and things went belly up. Banks lost money hand over fist, some ended up bankrupt, while the taxpayer bailed others out. The global economy took a nosedive, and countries ended up being much more in debt than they would have liked. As the next general election approaches, we are told that things are improving in the UK, but the deficit is large, and it is not coming down as quickly as expected. This is a serious problem, and something that will take time to sort out. There must have been many very difficult meetings in Whitehall, with departments told they need to spend less money and, where possible, generate money. Whether one agrees with this strategy or not, the logic behind it is straightforward to follow: we need to pay off our debts so we should spend less money and generate more of it. Continue reading

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How complex should models used by ecologists be?

In his thought-provoking blog, Tim asks a fundamental question every ecologist has to think about occasionally: how many terms should I include in my model? Tim argues that models with a high heuristic value include only a few parameters; models like Verhulst’s logistic model of population dynamics and Lotka-Volterra’s predator-prey model. Tim also advises that ecologists in the quest of universal laws should limit the number of parameters in their models to as few as necessary to get the job done. However, I shall argue that the devil is in the detail! Continue reading

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Modelers to the left of me, field biologists to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle with you

One of the things that I enjoy most about the science I do is collaborating with both field biologists who know their systems inside out, and theoreticians who’s specialist expertise is abstraction and equations. One thing I have learned from these collaborations is that every field or laboratory system exhibits some oddities. The Trinidadian guppy system is the latest, wonderful, system I have begun collaborating on, and it exhibits numerous quirks. One of my favourites is what we affectionately term ‘zombie males’. Because females store sperm, males can sire offspring after death. Such behavior is, of course, not particularly unusual, but this is the first time I have had to ponder whether it is necessary to incorporate such a life history ‘quirk’ in models, and if so, how. These system-specific oddities make me take issue with a quote from a theoretician colleague. It goes something like this: ‘reality is just a special case, and not a particularly interesting one’. Reality is, in fact, very interesting.   However, the oddities of each system do generate certain challenges for the modeler. Should they always be incorporated into models? Continue reading

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Down the up staircase: longevity and academics

Forty years. That’s at least how long an academic career can last, if you start at 30 and retire at 70. There is no mandatory retirement age (at least in the UK and US) and, unlike most people, tenured academics rarely lose their jobs. For older academics (say over 50) increased longevity can be accompanied by the right to work as long as one wants.

The usual career pattern – always sideways or up, rarely down – means that academics spend 20 years at near-maximum salary and with a tight grip on institutional power and hiring practices. This isn’t actually bad for productivity since studies convincingly show that aging doesn’t affect productivity. And the ability to work into old age is attractive to researchers whose salaries often lag the business sector. Continue reading

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